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Five Questions for Buckeyes heading into second off date

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Ohio State coach Ryan Day and the Buckeyes are storming into the final month of the regular season. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Five Questions for Buckeyes heading into second off date

COLUMBUS — Ohio State clearly made good use of the first off date.

Now it gets the benefit of a second one just in time to gear up for the closing stretch of the regular season.

While the program prides itself on taking nothing for granted, odds are the Buckeyes aren’t going to need to clean up much to get through what should be walk-over scrimmages against Maryland and Rutgers. But after that, Ohio State could be heading for a meat-grinding finish with a potential top-10 showdown against Penn State, a road version of The Game against rival Michigan and then a possible shot to defend its Big Ten crown in the conference championship.

If the Buckeyes are truly legitimate threats to win the national title, November is when it will truly earn the right to compete for it.

“The schedule is the way it is,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “And from the beginning, we talked to our team about the way the schedule played out. So, they’ve expected this.

“We knew where we wanted to be at this point. And we know we come up for air and talk about that final stretch of four games there. Hopefully we’ll go from there. But it’s about staying locked in on that, [because] November is the final run. This is where all the memories are made. This is what it all comes down to. But we’re not trying to look too far ahead, just trying to do a great job getting healthy in a bye week and talk about the plan and what we want to do in terms of expectations for next week. And we’ll get ready to make the last run.”

Up next is a breather for the Buckeyes. And like the previous one, Ohio State will no doubt be going through a self-evaluation period to see where it can still improve — even after eight consecutive blowouts. As always, Lettermen Row is kicking off the week ahead with Five Questions for the Buckeyes.

How healthy can Ohio State get?

The scary thought for the remaining opponents left on the schedule has to be that Ohio State still hasn’t been completely healthy yet. That’s true for virtually every team in the country over the course of the season in a sport as physical as college football, but it’s been remarkable how little the Buckeyes have been troubled by a few front-line injuries. On Saturday, both Jonathon Cooper and Tyler Friday were out on the defensive line, wide receiver Austin Mack was sidelined along with C.J. Saunders, key backup lineman Josh Alabi missed another outing and starting left tackle Thayer Munford was playing through an ankle injury. Those guys now get an extra week to rest, rehab and recover — and while issues can also pop up on the practice field, the Buckeyes figure to return to action as a stronger, deeper team.

Will Buckeyes make a change in return game?

The coaching staff prefers to play as much depth as possible, so it might not be in a hurry to name one guy as a full-time punt or kickoff returner. But the pecking order might need a tweak down the stretch, particularly with Garrett Wilson making the most of his opportunities on special teams and blossoming into a difference-making weapon for Ohio State. Add in the rise of speedy Jameson Williams as a possibility on kickoffs, then factor in some of the difficulties Demario McCall has had during his career fielding the football and it might be time for the Buckeyes to make a couple switches. The preference is generally to side with the more experienced guy in those high-stress situations, but Ohio State has been burned by that in the past. Those two freshmen look like they could be dangerous weapons in the return game, and any edge in the kind of competitive games looming at the end of November should be pursued.

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Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson delivered another jaw-dropping punt return for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Who will get most Heisman votes on Ohio State roster?

Get ready for a truly unique three-ring circus with a different Heisman Trophy candidate in each one at Ohio State this month. There’s not a lot of historical precedent for what the Buckeyes could do with three legitimate campaigns now launched for the sport’s biggest individual prize, and it will be fascinating to see how they all respond to the attention and scrutiny. Chase Young, J.K. Dobbins and Justin Fields are all selfless guys, respected leaders and well-liked by teammates, so there won’t be any jealousy or self-promotion over the others going on within the locker room. And the Buckeyes almost certainly aren’t going to throw any public-relations weight behind one guy at the expense of the other two, which should just leave the way they each play to do all the talking. But it will be interesting to hear how the Buckeyes talk about managing this scenario, because the attention isn’t going away any time soon.

How will Buckeyes manage rust versus rest?

Ohio State has been incredibly focused on taking just one week at a time, but it’s about to get the toughest challenge to that mindset so far. Maybe it will be easier for the Buckeyes with the off date if Day gives out another set of “Three Up, Three Forward” lists to keep everybody locked in on themselves without peering ahead at the schedule. But at some point, the coaching staff will surely be taking a glimpse a couple weeks into the future to figure out the best way to have Ohio State primed for the two biggest games of the season — and obviously those aren’t Maryland and Rutgers. Would the Buckeyes consider sitting key starters against the hapless Scarlet Knights? If guys are game-time decisions against the Terrapins, would the coaching staff be inclined to sit them to make sure they’re fully healthy for Penn State? Ohio State is well aware that it must take every practice, every game and every opponent seriously. But this is probably a good time to at least consider some options for those likely cakewalks.

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Ohio State defensive end Jonathon Cooper missed the win over Wisconsin. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Do Buckeyes need to change punt protection?

The slide-step punter Drue Chrisman is taking to apparently set up the protection and signal the snap count appeared to have been deciphered by Wisconsin on Saturday, resulting in one kick that was blocked and another that could have been early in the game. Ohio State has been one of the best teams in the nation on special teams, but it showed a little weakness there against an opponent where the margin for error was smaller. With a week to look back on what they’ve done so far, maybe the Buckeyes will search for a new way to shore that up for the closing stretch. Special teams coordinator Matt Barnes has proven to be a savvy hire and he’s done impressive work in the kicking game, so the exact motivation for that approach and any adjustments the Buckeyes make will be interesting to track.

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Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.

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